Digital Workflow in Middle School with 1:1 iPads

Remember the idea of a paperless workplace? Paperless bills? Paperless newspapers? Paperless books?

How much has been realized? How much is realistic? Technology was supposed to minimize waste, not increase it. But printing digital files has become a inseperable part of academic workflow for students and teachers for as long as computers have been in schools. When thinking about breaking the printing habit, it’s important to ask some key questions:

  1. Does printing student work help their learning?
  2. Does giving students printed learning resources help them learn better?
  3. Is printing work easier and/or more efficient for teachers and students than digital file exchange?
  4. Is printed material better for teachers when delivering feedback to students?
  5. Is handling paper in our genes and thus part of humanity?

If a school, a division, or even a class is considering digital workflow, the above questions should probably be addressed. I assume that anyone considering a digital workflow has the technology available to make it happen, i.e., a 1:1 program for students and teachers and easy access to a network or internet.

It is impossible to cover all the possible digital workflows out there or discuss all the variables involved, but I can talk about the thought process for Hillbrook as we move into  our third year as a 1:1 iPad middle school.

schoolworkflow1 Maybe it is easier to look at the disadvantages of paper in the classroom as part of workflow for students and teachers to help answer the above questions:

  1. Paper gets torn up, lost, and forgotten
  2. 3-ring binders meant to organize paper are bulky, break, and work for a fraction of students out there
  3. Handing in paper assignments that are “checked off” by the teacher in a few seconds to ensure a student is doing his/her work seems a waste of paper; also, the act of writing, turning in, a teacher checking off, and handing back, and the student filing away takes valuable class time
  4. More important assignments with more significant feedback also get lost, ruined, or forgotten
  5. Printing doesn’t always work or takes a long time

Advantages of paper:

  1. Potentially no tech needed – just a pencil and some paper
  2. It can be quick
  3. Teachers can collect it from students and validate quickly if they have done their work
  4. If organized well, paper is a physical record of work, not in danger of being deleted or digitally lost
  5. It feels good
  6. Super easy to give feedback on (but one dimensional feedback only)

There are probably other arguments on both sides of the field. This entry is not meant to convince you to go digital or not, but to give you some ideas about consideration when going digital with a 1:1 iPad program. We’re looking at combining iTunesU and eBackpack.

Distribution Method. There needs to be a reliable way to give material to students. It should be easy to access and organized. With the advent of iTunesU for K-12 schools, I can’t think of a more elegant system. It’s better than creating webpages, which inevitably involves design, and competes with the thousands of other websites where students travel. Tools like Moodle, Edmodo, and other classroom management systems require the student to download content, or view content in a browser, though they are worth considering. The iTunesU app on the iPad keeps everything together. Yes – it’ll open books in iBooks, PDFs in the app of your taste, but the origin is always there, like a binder with all materials for a course. A teacher can create his/her own materials with cK-12 or iBooks Author or add links to books online.

Work Creation. The range of iPad apps allows students to create in environments in which they are comfortable, and to experiment in areas they are not. Of course, whatever apps are used in a workflow, there needs to be a way to funnel them into the submission channel.

Work Submission. Many schools use email for digital workflow. Teachers can create rules to help manage their inbox and direct student work. I think email has become such a burdensome part of workflow that adding one more area that feeds into it is less than ideal. On the other hand, most people know how to use email, with varying degrees of efficiency. Cloud services like Dropbox, Box, and now Google Drive offer free solutions (up to a certain point) for file exchange. The most important part of the submission workflow, in my mind, is the “blind drop” function. In other words, you want a student to be able to submit a piece of work to a place that other students cannot see it. There are roundabout ways to do this with Google Drive/Docs and Dropbox (students can share a submission folder with only their teacher), but there is not a way (yet) for teachers to create a “write only without viewing” folder for students to submit work. Box does allow the write-only folder. eBackpack is an up-and-coming service that allows blind submission as well, and helps organize submissions for teachers nicely.

Work Collection. Again, cloud services are basically file systems that students and teachers share. You need to make sure that students cannot delete or see each other’s work. Also, in files systems, you want to keep the structure simple so everyone doesn’t have to dig too deeply to find the right location. Naming conventions will be important here.

Teacher Comments. Here’s another tricky one. How does a teacher comment on work and get it back, all digitally? He/she could download the document, print, make comments, scan, and submit. One could use an annotation app to mark and pass back the work. Box allows basic comments on the whole document, but comments pointing to specific areas is not possible–comments are more like notes on the top of a page. Shared Google docs do allow extensive commenting in the margins of a document–a student could give the teacher “comment-only” permissions so that the actual work is not touched. But, the student can change the document until the last minute when the teacher checks it. And commenting doesn’t work on the iPad. Darn. eBackpack bought Mark It, which allows a teacher to post stickies on the document, which students can see on the returned work, and a teacher can also make general comments on the piece, and give a grade. A teacher can also attach a file to the returned work (like an audio note, video comment, or a marked up pdfs done with a different app).

Work Return. The same as submission but you need to incorporate comments and feedback. Emailing students back their work is certainly one way. Sharing through cloud services is certainly another. Students will probably want to be notified. If you are dropping the file to a student’s folder, often there is not a clear indication of new arrivals – everything is in one bucket. eBackpack has a “new arrivals” area–a nice way to indicate a newly received piece of work.

Work Archiving. Like any folder system, it should be well organized. It would be nice also for students to be able to extract or tag their best work so it is easy to find if they want to showcase. A search feature to find work is also important.

There’s much more to this process. But that’s a start.

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